a community newspaper serving western Albemarle County

Blue Ridge Naturalist: Yes, Virginia, You Can Coexist with the Northern Copperhead

© Marlene A. Condon

This female copperhead may have thought she was completely hidden behind this feather! (Photo: Marlene A. Condon)

As an adult I’ve welcomed all wildlife to my yard wherever I’ve lived. But in 2006, shortly after my book, The Nature-friendly Garden: Creating a Backyard Haven for Plants, Wildlife, and People, was published, I faced a challenge to my open-door policy.

A female Northern Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen), a venomous snake, decided that she wanted to give birth underneath my carport! The ground had settled and fallen away from one corner of the concrete floor, creating an opening to a cave-like area. The female snake could be seen daily at that corner.

Copperheads are commonly considered to be much too dangerous to be allowed to live around people’s dwellings. Folks typically do not know much about these snakes, and their lack of knowledge, in combination with folklore, produces extreme fear of them.

Thus, understandably, my husband was concerned about having this snake in such close proximity to us. He didn’t want to kill the snake, but he thought we should “move it along” by covering up the entrance to what I had begun to call a den (the appropriate word for such a hidden retreat used by an animal).

However, I wasn’t keen on my husband’s idea. My knowledge of plant and animal life has been gained by decades of taking extensive notes, along with photo documentation, of my observations. I now had a golden opportunity to learn about Northern Copperheads!

I therefore suggested that we cover up most of the opening with a concrete block to see if that would discourage the snake, but leave enough of a space that the snake could continue to go inside if she still wished to do so. Luckily for me, the copperhead remained.

Her presence didn’t present much of a problem for us because the den was on the opposite side of the carport from the kitchen door. Thus we did not need to walk near the area occupied by the snake in order to enter or leave the carport.

Was it scary to know a venomous snake was hanging around so close to the entrance to our home? Definitely! But familiarity with the snake caused our fear of her to decrease and our fascination with her to increase.

What we’ve discovered over the past six years (one or more females have used the den during most of these years) is that copperheads are much more terrified of us than we need to be of them and that they are actually quite docile creatures that have no interest whatsoever in dealing with people.

Northern Copperheads can cause humans serious harm, but it’s highly unlikely if you follow three very logical and simple rules. I’ve lived in my current home for more than a quarter of a century and I’ve never come close to being bitten by one of these snakes.

First of all, one rarely sees a copperhead, even in a nature-friendly landscape. When you do, common sense should dictate that you leave it alone. Most people get bitten by snakes because they are either trying to kill the snake or to move it. Obviously a snake is going to try to protect itself under these circumstances.

Second, you need to pay attention to where you place your feet. Getting into the habit of watching where you step is a good idea even if you aren’t concerned about venomous snakes. There are lots of critters on the ground that you needn’t step on and injure or kill.

Third, you should never place your hands or feet into areas, such as among tall plants or a woodpile, where you can’t see what’s in there. There are quite a few animals that, out of fear as your foot or hand approaches them, can give you quite a sting or bite that may not be deadly but which, nonetheless, will hurt quite a bit.

Can children learn these rules? Absolutely, just as they learn never to cross the street without looking both ways first. In fact, statistics show that children are far more likely to be run over by their own parents in their own driveway than they are to be harmed by a snake.

They are also much more likely to be harmed by pets, such as dogs, cats, and horses, or even to be hit by lightning. Our fear of snakes is way out of proportion to the actual likelihood of harm from them.

By following the three aforementioned commonsense rules and by being observant, you can give copperheads the space they need to go about their business of helping to limit rodent numbers. We should—and we can—coexist with these animals.

And believe it or not, when there’s no Northern Copperhead coiled at the northeast corner of our carport, my husband and I actually miss having its company!

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1 Comment

  1. Great Article!!!! Thank you!! What a beautiful weekend to be in the mountains and camping. Although we have spent a great deal of time in the Blue Ridge Mountains during ski season at Wintergreen Resort, this year we will be camping in Crozet for at least another couple of months and we starting talking about snakes and we wanted to know what type of venomous snakes live here. I saw a Timber Rattlesnake years ago on a trail on Skyline Drive and I believe that copperheads are around. I respect snakes and I will be the first to get a photo, but I really don’t want to step on one or have one of the dogs try to “play” with one. I ran across your really interesting article and shared it to Facebook. Thank you!!!